Do advertorials sully the Reader?

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The Reader's annual People Issue featured several profiles sponsored by an advertiser alongside the issue's usual editorial content.
  • The Reader's annual People Issue featured several profiles sponsored by an advertiser alongside the issue's usual editorial content.
When the journalism industry now talks about deceptive practices it's talking about fake news that spreads online and the vast credulous public that laps it up. Advertorials—that is, advertising done up to look like it might have come from the editorial department—are a last-century vexation made more palatable by journalism's crescendoing need to sell any kind of advertising at all.

Keep that caveat in mind as you explore the new issue of the Reader, the annual People Issue. Here's what you'll find as you turn its pages:

You'll find an elegant series of profiles, each consisting of a simply captioned portrait of one of the featured people—"Camiella Williams, the survivor," for example. There are 19 of these profiles in the issue, one after another, each in the first person as told to a staff writer—"Pat Hill, the good cop," interviewed by Maya Dukmasova, and "Ethan Swanson, the daredevil," by Ryan Smith, for example.

But before you come to the last of these profiles, you'll come to something else: an eight-page, self-identified "sponsored section" called "I Am Chicago" that sports the logo "900 North Michigan Shops" on every other page. Here we find 12 other profiles, presented in a format that isn't identical to the adjacent Reader People pages but is powerfully similar.

These profiles are brief and anonymously written, and most are squeezed in two per page. These differences should collectively alert most readers that they're different—that the Reader and an advertiser agreed to put them here to enhance or complement the staff-produced material, the advertiser might say.

To underwrite them, the Reader is more likely thinking. We're OK with "Dominick & Donna Mondi, the power couple—presented by 900 North Michigan Shops" and "Valerie Groth, the education dreamer—presented by 900 North Michigan Shops," because the 88 pages in this print issue are the most we've had in months.

The online presentation of the issue is a somewhat different story. The Reader's profiles—those from this year's issue and those from 2015 are both presented here—and the sponsor's now share identical typography and design. And the sponsor's profiles are no longer sectioned off—they've been intermixed with the Reader's.

At the bottom of each post are navigation links labeled "previous post" and "next post," which make no distinction between our material and theirs. For instance, at the bottom of the Mondi post, the previous post is "Valerie Groth," an advertorial subject, while the next post is "Ethan Swanson," one of the Reader's.

Online, this presentation is deceptive and confusing. And we abet the confusion.

Once upon a time, I might have complained about the print presentation too, but that ethical train has left the station. I look at those eight solid pages of advertising and applaud whatever wheeling and dealing put them there. Reader editorial staffers have complained for years that our owner, the Sun-Times Media Group, was stripping away our own ad salespeople and saddling us with their incompetents. A new VP for business development, Nicki Stanula, began overseeing the Reader as well as the Sun-Times in late summer, and if she can bring in ads like this consistently, at a rate that pays the freight, let her test the bounds of traditional propriety. (Stanula wouldn't tell me what 900 North Michigan Shops actually paid.)

But online, where everyone says the future is, the Reader went wrong.

The Reader's editor, Jake Malooley, told me he thinks the advertorial content is "integrated elegantly into the site," and that "there's nothing deceptive about it."

"If I thought there was," he said, "I wouldn't allow it."

I don't agree with his assessment. In the Reader's defense, Malooley argued that ad copy that looks like editorial copy is "nothing new to the most hallowed houses of print and digital journalism," and has shown up in the Reader going back at least to 2004. He pointed out that our November 24 Gift Guide issue contained a "clearly marked" advertisers' "wish list" running alongside gifts suggested by the Reader staff.

True, journalism's front room and back room have been on a first-name basis for a long time. But the advertorial content that no one has the energy to complain about any longer is usually easy to spot and involves secondary material—like sponsored music listings or a restaurant review paid for by the eatery itself.

After acknowledging that it might be unreasonable to sound ungrateful for advertising of any kind, let me also acknowledge that the best kinds of ads are the ones that fit in and even add editorial value—like, say, an ad for a new German sedan that's virtually an essay on its merits and runs alongside a John McPhee essay in the New Yorker. That page now has value even to some readers with no interest in what McPhee is writing about.

Like that car ad, and unlike the contagion of digital ads so intrusive that viewers pay premiums to avoid them, the 900 North Michigan Shops ads show up gracefully on the People Issue site. They don't get in the way at all. You might not even notice that they're ads.

But for this to happen, the advertisers were allowed to burrow into the heart of prime editorial space, and appropriate for their marketing ends the design we created to serve our editorial ends—which they cheaply imitated. That's a fair amount of editorial dignity to give away—even in these times we live in.

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